Junking 101: Turquoise

For those of you addicted to the vintage treasure hunt, we bring you our series on knowing a bit more about your valuable finds. Junking 101 posts will focus your eye in on items that have stories to tell in history, and when to spot a truly unique lovely! It's gold, Jerry!
Western iconography carries within itself much more than a simple dollar value. The connotation of nostalgia, beauty, adventure, and nativity has seeped into the pores of objects such as cow skulls, indian trade blankets, cowboy boots, and cacti. They hold within themselves dreams of open roads with the windows down, dry wind whipping undone hair as you take in the majestic nothingness of the deserts, watching the background mesas slowly turn to snowcapped mountains in the distance. And the exploration of finding gems in the deserts, of wandering somewhereor nowherethe West doesn’t ask for decisions, it just beckons you come.

So when we happen upon treasures reminiscent of our beloved Southwest, it is easier to evaluate its dollar amount congruent with the feelings evoked in the treasurer—but what about its market value? What, exactly, are we looking at? We traveled to the High Noon show in Mesa, Arizona, where experts of all things Western come to share their finds and collectors come to admire them. Original saddles and trade blankets going for thousands of dollars, leather goods alongside silver goods, and what we are illuminating today: turquoise. With the vast array of hues, textures, and shapes this one mineral can come in—we wanted to know more.

And so we found out.

We found out the popularity of this mineral reaches further back and spreads wider than we expected. It carries deep meaning in cultures all over the world. And there are so. many. colors.

Before there was the West, there were Egyptian graves and Persian Empires. Ancient Egyptians inlayed turquoise in grave furnishings; and ancient Persians wore the sky-blue variety around their necks to protect against unnatural deaths (if the stone began changing color, it was a sign of doom for the wearer—dun dun dun). Later on, Europeans imported these gemstones from Turkey, gaining their name from the French word for Turkish, turquoise. From there, the name then spread to encompass the blue-green color (synonymous with the stone) as well. Only gold, silver, and copper carry the same promiscuity of being so commonly used for the color the mineral represents (think Kleenex for tissues, or Xerox for copy machines—turquoise sure branded itself well).

And now we journey to the Americas.

Native Americans really valued turquoise, trading the rough gemstones as well as turquoise objects even down into South America. Worn on the body or for ceremonial purposes, they believed turquoise signified the god of the sky was alive in the earth. It wasn’t until the nineteenth century that they began pairing coin silver with it to fashion their jewelry (a stroke of genius!) an this giving birth to the now famous duo: sterling silver and turquoise.

What has made us all, for thousands (and thousands) of years, prize and popularize turquoise? It’s primarily due to its color—blue gemstones are quite rare on this planet. But within this one color, there are numerous variations due to the chemical elements that make up the mineral. Turquoise is a hydrous phosphate of copper and aluminum, meaning water seeps into the picture (a.k.a. underground), and magic happens. Or, rainfall soaks into the ground and dissolves small amounts of copper, which then dries, mixes with phosphate and aluminum, and leaves deposits of turquoise in fractures underground. If you’ve ever noticed the beautiful blue-green patina oxidized copper produces, you’ll understand—magic! 

Pure goodness is when the chemical process produces the most desirable turquoise: sky, or robin’s egg blue. From there, other elements come into play to produce different hues of less desirable color: blue-green, yellowish-green, stones with brown/black spider webbing, or patches of brown/black. When bits of iron substitute themselves for aluminum in the recipe, the result is always greener—the green tint is directly proportional to the amount of iron imparted. And then there is the host rockor matrixfor you geology buffs. When the host rock gets entangled in the process, the spidery veins and patches form in turquoise. Though many cutters will do their best to cut these ‘impurities’ out, often they are unavoidable. And besides, some of us like seeing the matrix mixed with the bright blue—one of those “perfectly imperfect” kind of situations.

Arid climates cultivate the best conditions for turquoise formation (think the Southwest region of the USA, China, Chile, Egypt, Iran and Mexico). The leading producers of turquoise in the States today are Arizona (number one), New Mexico and Nevada—with second string mines in Colorado, California, Utah, Texas and Arkansas. Those who know their turquoise can often identify the place and/or mine in which a specific stone originated. Which is additionally impressive, especially considering turquoise can change color over time, from exposure to light, cosmetics, acidity from our skin, and/or dust—nature’s great mood ring. Since turquoise isn’t found as one solid crystal, rather as an aggregate of micro-crystals packed together, its porous character makes it more susceptible to these environmental influences. Which also gives turquoise its waxy—as opposed to glassy (like gold or diamonds)—luster.

When shopping around for turquoise, beware of the cubic zirconia (a.k.a. impostor) version—its synthetic antithesis. Both foreign (mainly Russia and China) and domestic (Gilson Company) producers have made glass, plastic, and ceramic look-a-likes since the seventies, damaging the market. These materials are often died blue, so a simple scratch will reveal whether it’s genuine turquoise or only skin deep. But if you happen upon a piece of genuine turquoise, you possess talisman teeming with luck, success, ambition, and creativity. 

So what turquoise stone types catch your eye—the smooth blue, the patchy blue-green, the chocolate brown matrix?